My name is Rachel, and I’m an International Studies major at AU, with a minor in Arabic Language and focuses in identity, ethics/human rights, and the Middle East. I am currently volunteering with the DC Rape Crisis Center (DCRCC) as a crisis intervention advocate on the DCRCC hotline. The DCRCC’s mission is to eliminate sexual violence and promote a culture of consent through various support services for survivors of sexual violence. The DCRCC provides resources and services such as counseling and therapy, legal services, community outreach and education, institutional and system advocacy, and more. As a hotline advocate, I take calls on the 24-hour DCRCC hotline and speak to survivors in need of support. The hotline is survivor-centered, meaning, as an advocate, I use consensual language to enable the survivor to guide the conversation towards what he/she/they need, whether that is someone to talk to, specific resources, or safety planning. I have paired this volunteer work with my Gender and Development class, which discusses the connection between gender, specifically focusing on women, and systems and methods of development.
My introduction to the DCRCC hotline was a gradual one, as I had a two-month, 60-hour training process to prepare for the role of a hotline advocate. When I first entered training, I expected the position to be a sort of counseling role, where I’d talk callers through emotional problems, like suicide and depression. I was nervous because I had no idea how to handle calls, and no idea how I’d even go about learning something that seemed extremely wide-ranging in terms of the nature of situations that could come up. However, as training progressed, I grew more and more confident. We began with foundational, conceptual training regarding the science of trauma, children and childhood trauma, the importance of elements of identity, such as race, gender, and sexuality, as well as the dynamics of power, rape culture, and consent. We further learned how to connect this foundational knowledge with work on the hotline. We discussed a caller’s identity as important to how they experience and react to trauma, and consent as important on the hotline to give callers confidence and agency in determining the outcome of the call and their situation. My expectations for the hotline changed in that I no longer view the hotline as therapy, but rather as a sort of intermediary resource that connects survivors to other resources, and facilitates the day-to-day survival of those dealing with the trauma of sexual violence. When I started actually working on the hotline and talking to callers, these new expectations were met and I realized how thorough the training was in preparing me for hotline advocacy.
The nature of this work, especially its foundational knowledge, connects with the learning objectives of my Gender and Development class. In class, we discussed dynamics of power and how those dynamics play out in society between men and women, where men have hegemonic power over women. In this way, men control the public/productive sphere, which includes politics and monetarized work, while women dominate the reproductive sphere, which includes homemaking and child-rearing. Because men control politics, and therefore policy-making, men create the policies, and even the discourses, on women’s sexuality and fertility. In essence, men control women’s bodies through their societal-political dominance. Further, men, who are seen as “naturally” part of the productive sphere, earn the money for the household as “breadwinners,” and therefore are also the decision-maker heads of the household. This relates to sexual violence, rape culture, and culture of consent, where power and power dynamics are at their core. Sexual violence is about asserting power over someone, and making them feel powerless by taking away their agency. Rape culture is the manifestation of men’s power over women’s bodies, where victims are blamed and perpetrators are held unaccountable. A culture of consent is about giving people the power to make their own decisions about their bodies, and, in general, their lives. On the hotline, the use of consensual language is vital, as my job is to give the caller their agency back in making their own choices. I don’t tell them what they should do or what they should want (as much as I’d like to sometimes!), I let the caller guide the conversation and tell me what they want to do, empowering them to act in a way that suits their specific needs in that moment.
Additionally, in my Gender and Development class, we talked about different feminist methods of development. The main one we discussed is the post-modern feminist development approach, in which a practice is deconstructed to its root cultural ideology in order to reform it. For example, female genital cutting (FGC) is opposed by many activist NGOs. While some organizations have worked on criminalizing the practice, this actually proves more harmful, since the practice isn’t eliminated and instead it is driven to be done in dangerous, unsanitary places and situations. Therefore, those seeking to eliminate the practice need to deconstruct it, look at the cultural ideals behind it, and work from there in order to end the practice. Similarly, rape culture can be eliminated, and a culture of consent can be built, through this approach of deconstruction and reconstruction, which I believe is already underway in the US. Organizations like the DCRCC, as I’ve learned from working on the hotline, are vital parts of this cultural reformation, as they not only work with and help survivors of sexual violence, but they also inform policy and the public about these harmful societal structures and how to change them. They create a new discourse that challenges old discourses of rape culture, in effect paving the way to dismantling the existence of sexual violence.